The drive from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to the historic, one-stoplight-village of Middleburg, Virginia, takes about half an hour but transports you to another century.
With ancient stone buildings tucked into rolling hills and meadows, Middleburg is the heart of Virginia horse country, a region rich in history and culture, just an hour from the capital of the United States. There are no chain stores, no Starbucks; life revolves around horses.
Among the region’s 400 equestrian events, the Middleburg Hunt attracted Jacqueline Kennedy to chase a fox across the fields. Elizabeth Taylor and her husband US Senator John Warner had a farm nearby. But for television executive Sheila C. Johnson, the region’s beauty and equine tradition inspired the Salamander Resort and Spa.
Spa estheticians guide your journey, offering custom-blended massage oil to match your mood, created by the resort’s resident alchemist from local flowers and herbs.
Combining an equestrian center, spa, and culinary showplace, the Salamander Resort has unique programs for children, as well as family-oriented activities. Arriving at the main lodge, you are welcomed in the traditional style of a Virginia grand manor house.
A blend of past and present, furnished in muted colors of silk and linen, accented by antiques from the Johnson collection, the core of the hotel is both majestic and relaxed. Bronze statues of Johnson’s children—champion equestrian Paige, brother Brett, designer of sportswear—lead to a wood-paneled library. Tall French doors open to a terrace overlooking a lush lawn where riders enter a network of trails. Around a corner, the mood subtly changes: water splashes in a rock-walled entry to the spa, focused on a Zen-inspired painting commissioned for the space.
Tea is served by a fireplace as your program is discussed. Spa estheticians guide your journey, offering custom-blended massage oil to match your mood, created by the resort’s resident alchemist from local flowers and herbs. For children, there’s a calendar of events presented by counselors who introduce local crafts, as well as flora and fauna.
Day One: Settle Into Your Spacious Room
Accents in leather, silk drapery, and fine linen enhance views of the meadow and nature preserve. A private balcony and sitting area are perfect for breakfast or relaxation. Bathrooms have separate shower and bathtub, plus bath salts to add when you want a relaxing soak.
Stay in shape with a workout at the spa. Located on the lower level, an airy fitness center has LifeFitness equipment and a movement studio. Swim laps indoors, or in the outdoor pool.
Learn about the Middleburg Hunt and traditions of the Gold Cup races in the bar, appropriately named Gold Cup. Join local residents and resort guests in a game of billiards while tasting wines from the region’s top vineyards. Sushi and small plates are on the bar menu. And you can have a formal afternoon tea.
Dinner in Harriman’s restaurant, named for former owners of the resort site who hosted Hunt breakfasts here, is both informal and dressy, country style.
Day Two: The Equi-Spective Program
Stroll to the Equestrian Center and you are in a world of leather saddles (English or western), a tack room where riders are outfitted by the resident staff under the gaze of a dozen horses, several cats and dogs—and equestrian director Sheryl Jordan. A veteran instructor for the past 40 years, Jordan believes the relationships between horses, humans, and nature can equip riders with life-changing leadership skills. Salamander has opened a new phase for children and their parents, Jordan explained.
Plan a self-discovery program with Jordan and her staff. Each session unites horse and rider with the ultimate goal of developing leadership expertise and self-confidence. The multi-level experience can be scheduled in four-hour or eight-hour sessions, ranging in price from $200 to $450 per person in group session, or from $125 for a private session lasting one hour, tailored to your ability.
The wooden 14,000-square-foot Equestrian Center has 22 stalls, nine paddocks, and training arena. The resident horses and earthy scents calm the senses. Classes and group trail rides are scheduled on 500 wooded acres. Even non-riders enjoy what Equestrian Director Jordan describes as communicating with horses using body language. But I’m convinced we learn more from the horses.
Day Three: Yoga on Horseback & A Visit to the Spa
Salute the sunrise with yoga in the stables. Glistening in morning sunlight, the meadow awakens. You feel balanced and ready to downward dog on a horse. It is part body language, explains Jordan, and part mid-body training. The horse’s body warmth adds calm support, and spotters are on each side if your balance falters. Class consists of 30 minutes of traditional yoga in the stable and 30 minutes of back and leg stretches on the horse.
After a hearty country breakfast, the spa is the perfect place to reconnect body and soul. Relaxing in the whirlpools and sauna prior to a massage or facial. Salamander spa offers a unique combination of natural and botanical treatments with a focus on proper balance of skincare for an outdoor lifestyle and dealing with the stress that comes from living in an urban environment.
Teenagers regularly show up with their parents to experience their first massage or pedicure. And baby boomers get special attention. Escorted to separate locker rooms, you change into cotton robes and slippers, relax in a communal whirlpool and steam sauna. Heated ceramic recliners help soothe stressed muscles.
There are 14 deluxe treatment rooms, most with an outdoor terrace, and a spacious suite for couples to enjoy the experience side by side in a private garden, complete with whirlpool: Themed treatments include “Rider’s Relief massage” for equestrians; deep tissue “Golfer’s Massage” using golf balls to help align the body; “Bamboo Massage” where the therapist uses warm bamboo stalks to give a deep combination of heat and pressure to release toxins from the body caused by stress.
Salamander mud detox and mineralization treatments are unique in the mid-Atlantic states. The “Cure” uses enzymatic heat to open the pores and botanical products to soothe, moisturize and revitalize the skin, creating a luminous appearance. A Moroccan-inspired Rasul chamber is steam-infused as you apply three types of mud to cleanse and detox the body. The Asian Fusion, a two-hour ritual inspired by traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda includes a massage.
Exclusive to the Salamander spa is the seasonal ritual derived from native plants, flowers, and essential oils prepared by a local alchemist. Botanical blooms and organic fruits, as well as herbs from the spa garden, are blended in this four-season treatment, lasting from 80 minutes to nearly three hours.
Lunch can be served outdoors at the swimming pool, or on the Gold Cup terrace. For privacy, rent a cabana and spend the afternoon.
Day Four: A Taste of the Virginia Piedmont
In the heart of Virginia, where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet gently rolling hills and the Piedmont plains, the Salamander Resort & Spa capitalizes on the bounty of farms and vineyards throughout the region. Rich in natural beauty, the farmlands include homes of early colonists who shaped American history. A short drive from Middleburg, quaint towns and inns, wineries, and antiques shops make for a great day trip.
The Piedmont inspires the menu at Salamander’s barn-like Harriman’s restaurant. Dining under a sky-lit dome, with vistas of the green pasture, you are treated to traditional American fare, from omelets and sausage to Eggs Benedict made with crabmeat from Chesapeake Bay, grits and shrimp, and local game. Portions are big, made for sharing. Sunday brunch is the best time to sample the full range of this Virginia Piedmont Grill.
Learn about culinary traditions in the Cooking Studio, where chefs demonstrate skills and then help you cook the featured item. Kids can sharpen skills at cooking classes for the younger set. Advance registration is required, and there is a fee for each two-hour class. Ask the chefs for a tour of the kitchen garden and pick vegetables for your dinner.
Ride a horse-drawn carriage into Middleburg for a stroll on Washington Street. Drop in at the Red Fox tavern to sample traditional food (think fish-and-chips or hamburgers) and local wines. Mix with locals at the Salamander Market, a showplace for food, wine, and gifts for the home. Visit the National Sporting Library & Museum, housed in historic homes across the street from the market, to learn about equestrian, fishing, and field sport history.
Day Five: Outdoor Action
Strap onto the zip line for a tour through treetops. This 1.5- to 2-hour eco-friendly tour has five zip lines varying in length from 200 to 700 feet, as well as aerial walkways and intermediate viewing stations throughout Salamander resort’s nature preserve. Trained guides lead the entire canopy adventure, with participants’ speed reaching 20 mph on the zip line as they share insights on the local flora and fauna, as well as the geology and history of the area. (Minimum age requirement is 8).
Time to check out. Prices of spa services, resort activity, and meals do not include tax or gratuity. Salamander is not just a destination, it is an historical landmark at the crossroads of what is emerging as a new breed of luxurious resort that reconnects one with the land, with nature, history, local organic foods and wines, and with yourself.